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Red Aldean had never met a river he couldn’t fish, a rapid he couldn’t expertly navigate through or a problem he couldn’t solve. At least that was what he’d thought before he’d started falling for Emma Corbyn. She was just a girl. Yeah, he knew it wasn’t PC to call them that, but his dad always had referred to all women as girls—even his mom and Red had picked up the habit.
It was July in Last Stand, Texas, and as his granny used to say hotter than Hades. Everyone he knew was paired up and he felt like he should have said yes when his parents had asked him to come and spend the summer with them in Seattle. But that would have felt like giving up. Plus, he couldn’t leave Texas until his delicate legal matter was taken care of.
He’d been determined to get Miss Emma Corbyn to notice him since Christmas. So far, he’d tried some of the advice his best friend Braden had given him. But that hadn’t worked. Emma wasn’t like all the other girls. She was…special. There was something about her that had always made him take notice. So he’d pulled out his trusty A Texan’s Guide to Fishing and had started applying it to Emma.
The first tip was to find the right bait. Unlike a bass or a carp or a gar, Emma wasn’t like the other women he’d dated. He’d been watching her to get ideas. He knew she loved books but hadn’t been able to find the exact right one yet. He’d overheard her mention yellow roses but he knew it was too soon to send them to her. But lavender lemonade…well that was just about right. And perfect for this hot, summer day.
He’d had to go to her grandmother to get the recipe, which Priscilla Corbyn was happy to supply in exchange for a few fillets of bass that he’d caught and cleaned fresh for her. So now he had a thermos, full of her favorite drink, but was waiting for the best moment to bring it to her.
“Damn, boy, either ask her out or go get laid,” Braden said as he handed him a beer and sat down next to him on the bleachers for the Last Stand Fourth of July rodeo.
“Who?” he asked, playing it cool, because Braden Delaney could suck it. Braden wasn’t as smart as he liked to think. He might be the COO of Outlaw Tequila but he didn’t know everything.
Braden punched him in the shoulder and shook his head. “Red, don’t even pretend. You haven’t taken your eyes off Emma and her little band of rodeo cowboys and queens since we got here.”
“Maybe I was…hell, Bray, I keep waiting for the right moment. Finn said timing was everything and gave me some other advice,” Red admitted, still staring at Emma.
She wore a denim mini skirt and a pair of Kelly Boots made in nearby Whiskey River. She had on a white shirt with little flowers on it—he couldn’t see the flowers from here but he’d been in Yippee Ki Yay when she’d shown it to her mom. Her long, brown hair was pulled back in a braid and she had a straw cowboy hat on her head. And her rodeo queens were duded up like her and the little boys were dressed as cowboys.
“What did Finn suggest?” he asked. “He was damned lousy with advice when I was trying to convince Lea to fall for me at Christmas. I think he got lucky when Lancey fell in love with him.”
“Me too. He said to make Emma jealous by dating other women,” Red said. Which was counter to the fishing guide. Fish didn’t pay that much mind to other fish. But Finn had always been successful with women, so he’d asked out a woman he’d met at the saloon. “It didn’t work. She just told me how nice she thought Ariana was and that I should bring her to her folks’ Fourth party.”
Braden threw his head back laughing.
Red felt some genuine hatred for the other man. Everything had always seemed so easy for Braden with women…well they had always been hard for Red. Give him an impassable trail and he could find his way through it, but women…Emma was a mystery.
Sure, it was easy to laugh at him, but wooing Emma had turned into an obsession. He’d canceled a fishing trip with some buddies to Alaska to just stay closer to Last Stand and deal with another matter but Emma was providing the right distraction he needed this summer. Emma was the head librarian and pretty much never left their hometown. She was busy with her community projects, library projects and just being a Corbyn. Her daddy and his people had owned the People’s Bank of Last Stand for…well forever.
Red’s family showed up a bit later than the battle of Last Stand, but they were trappers and guides. He was proud to carry on that tradition. He liked the expedition company that he’d inherited and slowly been growing since he’d taken over when his dad retired.
In fact, until Braden and Lancey had hooked up and settled down to coupledom, Red would have said he was living his best life with his best friends. But of course, now he was aware that he was alone. That all his friends were showing up to every damned event in Last Stand—and there was a heck of a lot of them—with a partner and Red was still going stag.
“Finn was yanking your chain,” Braden said. “Remember he said don’t front when the woman is important. Don’t do what normally works…I thought you were trying the fishing thing.”
He took another swallow of his Lone Star beer and nodded. “Yeah, I am. She’s like Big Bertha.”
“The legendary Guadalupe bass?”
“Yes. I know she’s there. I know I’ll catch her but she’s making me wait. I figured Finn’s advice was a bit like trying another spot if you’re not getting a bite. But now I’m not so sure.”
“Just ask her out,” Braden said. “Stop trying to come up with a plan and just do it.”
“Just do what?” Lea Dunwoody asked as she joined them. She had a big diamond on her ring finger that winked in the sunlight, pronouncing to the world that she and Braden were engaged.
“Ask Emma out,” Braden said.
“Shut it. I don’t want every busybody in Last Stand to know I like her.”
“Dude, the only one who doesn’t is Emma,” Braden said.
“What do you think, Lea? Should I ask her out?” Red asked.
“What have you got to lose?”
“If she says no then I can’t ask again. I won’t be that guy. And I’m not sure I’m ready yet. I’ve been collecting ideas…”
“She’ll probably say yes,” Lea said. “A lot of women down at the saloon think you’re hot. I even heard someone talking about you in Booze’s Place last week when I was over in Whiskey River having lunch.”
He shook his head. He needed to get out of here. But they were right as well. He needed to stop trying to make something happen with Emma. He’d never been the kind of man to make plans and then hesitate. Not before her.
Yeah, he thought. This was probably what he should have done back in January. He finished his beer with a long swallow and stood up.
“You getting another round?” Braden asked.
“It’s time to cut bait or go home.” He picked up the thermos with the lavender lemonade and headed to the staging area.
Emma Corbyn could remember when she and her sisters had dressed up for the rodeo queen pageant. These days it was more of a little parade than an actual beauty pageant, but back in the day her sister Amelia had won the title of Miss Last Stand three years running. She and Delilah were always in the “court” but it wasn’t the same. When she’d advanced the idea of having a parade of the rodeo queens instead of a pageant the community advisors had agreed. They’d also opened it to anyone. It was a chance for the kids to dress as cowboys.
“The little rodeo queens are having a blast,” Amelia said as she handed out refillable water bottles to the kids.
“I’m glad. I was a little afraid that our town might not be as progressive as I hoped it was,” Emma admitted.
“Me too,” Amelia said. “I’ve got Cal on standby to take down anyone who says anything untoward.”
“You’ve been reading again,” Emma said with a laugh.
Amelia laughed along with her. “I have. You won’t believe it, but this is the first chance I’ve had to use untoward since I read it almost two months ago.”
“I would believe it. I struggle to use vex all the time,” Emma said with a smile.
“I don’t. My older sisters constantly vex me,” Delilah said as she came up next to them. She had a Cassidy Crane woven basket that Emma would bet good money was filled with chocolate chip cookies.
Cassidy was a local Hill Country weaver who’d started a small shop online that had been noticed by Reese Witherspoon and now everyone wanted her baskets.
“Whatever, D. Glad you could make it. Lancey is going to do some trick riding and shooting during the break after these guys get up on stage and do their number,” Emma said.
“Me too. I didn’t want to miss seeing my favorite kiddos,” Delilah said. “Can they have a cookie before they go up there?”
“What do you think?” she asked Joey who was helping her with the kids.
“Yeah, give them a treat. We all need more sweet things in life,” Joey said. “Dang, it’s hot today.”
“It is. Why are we doing this in July?” Amelia asked.
“It’s patriotic,” Emma said. “Remember? That’s what we do.”
“It is,” Lancey said coming over to them. “Thought I’d grab a cookie before I go out there. Had to dodge Finn. If you see him pretend you don’t know where I am.”
“First of all, why? Also, he knows where you’ll be,” Emma said to her friend. Last year Lancey’s brother had been killed in a tragic accident that had also taken the life of Rose Delaney, leaving their child Lane orphaned. But Lane was surrounded by aunts and uncles who were raising him together. Lancey and Finn had gotten together last summer and the two of them had been married in April. Since then things had been dicey between the former NASCAR driver and the police officer. No one really knew why but Finn was suddenly overprotective, which wasn’t his normal MO at all.
“He’s just worried about me. Didn’t want me to ride. I’ve been practicing for eight months and the man thinks I’m just going to sit it out. He’s crazy,” Lancey said.
“That is crazy,” Amelia said. “Um…I think you should know that he’s told Cal why he’s being so…not Finn.”
“What? That jackass. We were keeping it quiet,” Lancey said.
“If it’s any consolation he is truly worried for you,” Amelia said.
“Can we know? Are you sick? Do you have a health issue?” Emma asked, looking over at Joey who was watching the kids as she and Delilah kind of moved Lancey and Amelia to a more private area.
“I’m pregnant,” she blurted out. “You know the Maverick in me is freaking out because that’s usually when the mister leaves, but another part of me is really excited. A baby of my own. I haven’t had a family really until Finn so expanding it is great.”
Lancey kept on talking and Emma hugged her friend. Pregnant. That was wonderful. Lancey was going to have her own family. “Finn’s not going anywhere.”
“I know. He’s practically become my shadow,” she said. “He’s worried I’ll fall off the horse or shoot myself… He actually said that to me.”
Delilah shook her head. “You’re not going to shoot yourself. That man.”
“What man?” Finn asked coming up to her.
“Yeah, what man?” Lane asked, hugging Lancey’s legs. “We was ’fraid we’d missed you.”
Lancey squatted down to be eye level with her nephew and hugged him tight. “I wouldn’t go into the ring without seeing my two best guys.”
“I made you this,” Lane said, handing her a paper rosette ribbon that read THIS COWGIRL IS TAKEN.
She took it from him and used the straight pin to attach it to her western shirt. “Thanks, Lane.”
She kissed him and stood back up.
“You feel okay?” Finn asked.
“Except for being annoyed with my husband, yes,” she said.
“I’m not annoying,” he said, pulling her into his arms and kissing her.
Emma and the others turned away and she took Lane’s hand. “Want a cookie?”
She led him over to the other kids and Delilah came with her, handing the little boy a cookie. Since her sister was married to Lane’s oldest uncle—Cal—both she and Delilah considered themselves to be aunts to Lane by marriage.
“Red is watching you,” Delilah said after they gave a cookie to Lane.
“He’s standing under the metal bleachers and looking over here. I know he’s not looking at me,” Delilah said.
“How do you know that?” she asked.
“Because he likes you,” Delilah said.
“You’d be wrong. He was with some blonde that he met in the saloon last week. And he wasn’t just showing her how to fish,” Emma said. Not that it bothered her. Red Aldean could date whomever he wanted to. She thought there was something between them back at Christmas, but he’d sort of shifted into low gear and started dating around town. So, she’d read him wrong. Which was fine. She should stick to books instead of men.
“I don’t think so,” Delilah said. “He’s walking this way. Oh ho, so is Gavin Rooney. Looks like you are the rodeo queen after all.”
Red acknowledged to himself that the problem with Emma was that she was just so…Emma. Even now in the hot, July summer she looked just sort of perfect. She’d pulled her long brown hair into a braid, but tiny little wisps escaped to frame her heart-shaped face. She had a straw cowboy hat perched on her head and an easy smile for everyone. He stood in the shade sweating as if he’d run a marathon instead of just walked the few yards from the bleachers to the staging area.
Of course, he wasn’t the only man to have noticed her. So, it seemed, had Gavin Rooney. He was all duded up to look like a Hollywood version of a cowboy. He didn’t wear Kelly Boots; they were a national brand that Red thought had sold out a long time ago. He wore a pair of jeans that looked brand new…heck, Red was pretty damned sure he could still see the crease in them. He was heading straight for Emma.
He had that lavender lemonade he’d made for Emma and as soon as he approached her Delilah gave him a wink and walked around him.
“Hiya, Gavin, I’ve been wanting to ask you more about that scone recipe you mentioned,” Delilah said.
Red mentally decided he owed her a drink.
“Red, it’s good to see you.”
Her voice was low and her words sweet and slow like Texas honey. She took her time when she spoke, like she did everything.
“Good to see you too,” Red said. He could hear Gavin wrapping up with Delilah and knew if he was going to make a move, he needed to do it now. “I made you something.”
“You did?” she asked.
“Yes. I figured you’d be getting hot out here with your kids’ group and not able to go get refreshments, so I have this thermos of lemonade for you.”
He held it out to her, and their fingers brushed. A shiver went through him and he tried to ignore it but didn’t succeed. He stood a little taller and fought the urge to flex his muscles to show off for her. He knew that wasn’t the kind of thing she normally paid much mind to, but he couldn’t help himself. She made him want to preen and prove his strength.
“Thank you, Red,” she said. “That was very kind.”
She opened the top of the thermos and poured some into the cap. After the first sip she looked over at him, her brown eyes wide with surprise.
“This is lavender lemonade,” she said.
“It is. I got the recipe from your grandmother.”
“It’s my favorite,” she admitted. “How’d you know that?”
“I’m a noticing kind of guy,” he said.
“Are you?” she asked tipping her head to the side, which jostled her cowboy hat causing it to start sliding off.
He reached out to steady it, seating it back on her head. “I am.”
“What else have you noticed?”
He took a deep breath. She’d nibbled at the bait on his pole, but he didn’t want to rush it and scare her away.
“That you like picnics on the Pedernales,” he said. “I’ve seen you out there when I take my tours up the river.”
“I do like them,” she admitted.
“How would you feel about lunch with me tomorrow?” he asked.
She took another sip of her lemonade and then nodded. “I’d like that. But it only seems fair that I pack the lunch. You can bring more of this lemonade.”
He nodded. “I’ll do that. See you at noon, Emma, at my place, okay?”
“See you then, Red.”
He turned and walked away, nodding at Gavin as he went, trying not to feel too smug but he knew he’d selected the right bait for this opening foray into wooing Emma Corbyn.
End of Excerpt